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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
On the Cultivation of the Potato


By Mrs Paterson, now Roger, Potato Merchant, 38 Union Street, Dundee. [Premium—Five Sovereigns.]

What method of cultivation ought to be adopted in order successfully to prevent a total failure of the potato crop, and to produce a vigorous habit and constitution to resist the attacks of disease to which the old varieties have been so long subjected, is a question of vital importance to our country and to the world, the potato being a necessary auxiliary of food, and consequently the cultivation of it a great commercial enterprise. This question, for many years past, has attracted the earnest attention of the statesman, the philosopher, the economist, and the man of science, and now that disease again threatens this palladium against famine (when this phrase was first used, I question much if it was thought the object of the eulogy should itself be the cause of famine and consternation), it must be obvious that great necessity exists in agriculturists devoting their utmost thought, care, and attention to the culture of new varieties of potato.

Potato disease is the result of degeneration and decay, caused by repeated propagation from the old varieties. As a natural consequence the plant must, and will wear out. It becomes weak in constitution, worthless as a cropper, and subject to many forms of disease from the vicissitudes of climate or atmospheric action, not only after it has developed its stems, but before the germ has risen out of the ground.

From the experience I have had of potato raising and potato culture, my conviction is there is no remedial cure for the disease, it being inherent in the plant, caused partly by atmospheric action, the plant having the seeds of disease within itself ready to be developed under favourable circumstances, and that the present stock will be more or less subject to it.

The potato is only destined to serve its day and generation the same as animal life, and a successive and regular renewal of the esculent from the small seed found in the plum of the potato, thus producing an infusion of new blood, is no doubt the only effectual remedy for disease, restoring vigour and saving the plant from annihilation. It was only about the year 1826 that disease in the potato seems first to have attracted the attention of agriculturists. As to the cause many conjectures were put forth, and all experiments tried that human skill could devise to ward off the epidemic and regenerate the old plant to its original strength, but in vain. Previous to the visitation of the fatal blight of 1846, which in one night nearly destroyed the whole crop of the nation, the potato had become so weakened in constitution from repeated planting, that the plant had almost ceased to flower, and the potato plum so entirely disappeared that I question much if the rising generation were aware that ever the plum existed, or that new varieties could be grown from them. Each plum has its small seeds innumerable, every one of which produces potatoes of varied form, colour, habit, and constitution, and wonderful to relate, perhaps none of them the same as the mother plant, and great difficulty is experienced in getting one good seedling out of the many varieties.

In the year 1853 the potato in this country had ceased to flower or bear plums, which necessitated an amalgamation of varieties blended together by atmospheric action and insect labour, in order to produce plums.

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) from Central America, Chili, East and West Indies, Australia, and Cape of Good Hope, were imported into Scotland and planted promiscuously with the "Rock" potato (brought into Scotland from Ireland in 1848), in a field of newly taken in land where the atmosphere was damp, and the field previously manured in the autumn with farm-yard dung. Most of these plants produced flowers, but only a few bore plums, and still fewer plums ripened. However, the experiment was successful; new seed was obtained, and from these insignificant looking things have been produced the countless new varieties that have restored the potato to the comparatively healthy state it is now in from the dead rot of 1845, which threatened to exterminate it from off the face of the earth.

I shall now explain how new kinds may be raised from the small seed of the plum or apple of the potato, to replace the old and worn-out varieties.

Gather potato apples when ripe; those that fall off the shaws of their own accord are the ripest and make the best seed. Store them in a water-tight vessel, and allow them to remain there till the glutinous matter becomes decomposed, then bruise them down amongst water, filter through a sieve so as to pass the seed through, leaving the refuse back. Again mix the seed with plenty of clean water, pass it into a sieve small enough in the meshes to retain the seed, keep working the sieve well in the water till you are certain the seed is entirely free from the pulp, then dry thoroughly on a thin cloth in the sun, or indoors in a dry situation. It will then be fit for use. Sow in March month in a box filled with properly prepared mould, covering the seed about half-an-inch with the earth. The box may then be placed in a greenhouse of moderate temperature, care being taken to keep the earth in equal heat and moisture.

"When the plants are a few inches above the ground, which should be in about a month, pick out the most robust with plenty of earth attached, and transplant them to an early border, which should slope to the south, manured, say with one-fourth lime, one-fourth wood-ash, and one-half decayed leaf-mould, all mixed together and scattered over the surface of the border. The lime will prevent destruction by worms, woodash (the food of the plant), will improve the skin and growth of the potato, and the leaf mould will serve as a nutriment. The sets should be planted twelve inches apart so as not to obstruct each other. Water a little when requisite. Hand weed. Draw the earth carefully from time to time round the necks of the plants, taking care not to chop, cut, or injure the stems, and continue their culture the same as other potatoes. You will know when they are ready for lifting by the leaves turning yellow and the decay of the shaws; they may then be forked up and stored. Those that ripen by the middle of June should be put away marked as earlies, and those about July as second earlies, and the late ones as standard kinds.

It will be years of continuous cultivation before you get quantity, or even some proof as to quality, of any single variety, but just go on, carefully keeping every kind separate. Discard all weak plants, and only grow those that appear to be compact in growth, well formed in the tuber and vigorous in habit. Carefully store the produce of each plant in a box by itself.

In March replant, during a moist day, each variety in a drill by itself in an open field of easy soil, and in a well sheltered situation having a southern aspect, properly ploughed and manured the previous autumn with about twenty tons of farmyard manure to the acre. Open furrows three feet apart, and plant sixteen inches from set to set. Plant carefully, not to injure the sprouts, placing the sets with the eyes uppermost. Potatoes that have not sprouted but merely pushed out buds are the best, but if the sprouts are long they should be removed, as it would be difficult, unless in garden planting, to keep them entire. The setters, who should move in a retrograde position, should be provided with baskets from which to drop the sets into the drills. Make it a strict rule to cover up each drill as soon as planted, in the manner in which they were before opened, and at no time lay down more sets than can be covered up immediately; for if left exposed to frost they will be useless, or if left to the action of the sun and then covered up with the hot earth some of their vitality maybe destroyed, and you will not get a regular braird. If a top-dressing of wood-ash or charred vegetable mould is thrown over the drills before the last furrowing up, it will be serviceable as extra manure. Two hundredweight of guano to the acre makes a good azote. On stiff and retentive soils, decayed tan, if freely used, has been proved to be highly beneficial in warding off blight. When the haulm appears above the ground, which if the weather is favourable will be in about a month, the hand hoe or scraper should be passed between the drills so as to destroy all weeds, which are very injurious to the growth of the potato. By the time the plants are meeting in the drills they should have had their last furrowing up.

"If the blossoms of the potato plant are picked off before they run into plums (which could be done by boys), it will increase the weight of the tubers considerably, as much strength of the plant goes to nourish the plums." When potatoes are ripe the sooner they are lifted the better, dry weather being chosen for the operation. All should be lifted and stored by the end of October, or before the frost can injure them. There are various ways of taking them out of the ground, the hand grape, the plough, single and double, and also machinery, but whatever method is used, the principal object should be, to lift them all, and to gather up all as you proceed, for if once trod into the soft earth no harrow will take them out. The intrinsic value of the potato consists in its being neither too large nor too small, rough skinned, white fleshed, fine flavoured, mealy, and the eyes few and shallow.

After the trouble of raising and cultivating such a precarious and valuable crop as the potato, great care should be taken in the storing. The best method to keep them is in clamps or pits, either round or prismatical in form, and should slope evenly from the roof to allow the rain to run off easily. The pit should be laid with the ends north and south to keep off as much as possible the frosty winds of winter. The bottom should be four or five inches below the level of the ground and three feet six inches wide. The height of the pit from three to four feet. The lighter and thinner potatoes are pitted the better. No matter how long the pit is, supposing there is room and plenty of wheat straw to cover it. The most important thing to guard against is heat, and that especially in new seedlings, as they are young and vigorous and full of moisture when taken out of the ground. Place plenty of clean dry straw on your potatoes, say about a foot thick from top to bottom. Then cover very lightly with earth, just sufficient to keep the straw down. On no account, if you value your potatoes, cover completely with earth till they have had time to cool. In about a month or six weeks, if there is danger from frost, place sufficient earth on the pit to secure the potatoes for the winter. If plenty of straw is used it will be sufficient to keep out any frost till the potatoes have had time to throw off their moisture which they will readily do. All the shaws should he gathered off the field in a heap. I have often kept a pit all the winter, especially the Bovinia potato. with but a light covering of earth loosely thrown on, and the old potato shaws thrown thickly over the top. Frost and snow never hurt them, and they came out in March, cool, hard, and sound, and what is of great importance, had a splendid flavour always essential to a good table potato. One reason why we often get potatoes of doubtful quality is through careless storing, and not the fault of the ground they are grown in or the seed planted. Further, to protect the plant, potatoes for seed purposes should be grown especially for that end and not for an abundance of crop, and in a different district altogether from where they are required for planting for ware purposes. Put them as far north as possible, to make them hardy, and if possible on newly taken in land of a light loamy nature or a clean sandy soil by the seaside.

The seed should be planted in March, the sets 12 inches apart and 2½ feet between the drills. This will give a uniform size, and nearly all of them will be fit to plant whole, and will contain more soluble than starchy matter. In many cases such seed when planted in good soil will yield several tons more per acre than what is called "middlings," such being the after-growth of the plant and unfit for seed purposes. Depend upon it, it is folly and mistaken economy to use such seed. They will not produce uniform crops, and they are not sure to produce even an average one, and the tubers not up to size. When disease appears it is first seen in such crops—and no wonder; for the seed perhaps is grown for years in the immediate neighbourhood, or the small potatoes, the refuse of those sold in our markets for domestic purposes, dressed over a 1¼ in. riddle for seed; such potatoes are too weak in constitution to bear a crop, let alone resist disease. In fact if you wish for crops of good quality, regular in the braird, strong in growth, and with abundance of tubers, you must select your seed grown for that purpose.

Potatoes grown in the manner I have described for seed, do not approach in quality or shape those grown for table use, the exposed situation they are grown in not admitting of either; but when removed to a more genial climate, they are often so much altered for the better that you would scarcely believe they were the same kind. In all cases care should be taken to select seed suited to the soil you intend to plant in. Rocks, regents, and kidney potatoes put out long filaments and throw their tubers wide of the shaw, so that it is injurious to plant these varieties in a strong soil, which naturally hinders their growth, when a light sandy soil would encourage that particularity and give them free scope. Other kinds, the Victoria for instance, press the tubers so closely together that the soil in this respect is not of so much consequence; yet strong soils, as a rule, do not give potatoes of fine quality or the best adapted for table use.

Material good has been produced in keeping away disease, by transferring seed from one locality to another. Remove from an unproductive to a more generative soil, and from a cold to a more genial climate, if you wish to propagate largely. If whole sets are available they are the surest and best for planting. They should weigh 2 or 3 ounces each. If cut seed is used the number of sets must depend on the size of the tuber and the number of eyes they possess. Kidneys and flukes are best planted whole, as they have few eyes and only at the rose end. Victoria may be cut into two sets straight down the centre. Regents, rocks, early round, and bovinia in angles, ranging in size and number according to the eyes of each tuber. When seed potatoes are fresh and in good order, they cut crisp and exude a good deal of moisture, which soon evaporates. The ground should be ready to receive them when cut, and it is not good to heap them up in a cart, shed, or barn when cut. I believe most positive injury is done to the crop by such treatment, as fermentation will set in and destroy life. The surest and best method is to cut and plant immediately. It will take 12 or 15 cwt. of potatoes to plant an acre.

In regard to varieties, they are at present so numerous that a list is of little use, as the application would depend on the soil and climate. There is no difficulty in selecting for field or garden planting, potatoes which have at least undergone a partial test, conducted with great care, and reported upon from time to time by professional and amateur growers. This enables others to select seed best suited to different localities. No absolute rule can be laid down as to when particular kinds may be planted, but they may be classed in three divisions. Plant early kidneys in February, second earlies in March, and late varieties on to May. Bovinia, being of quick growth, may be planted as late as June.

Although I have compiled these remarks from my own experience, and not gathered them from books, I do not presume to uphold them as a complete guide to agriculturists, but rather in the hope that they will add one link to agricultural knowledge and domestic economy.

Before concluding, I would ask agriculturists of experience what the consequence would be if blight in the potato plant again swept the land as in 1845-46?

Though the new seedlings that have been raised have not been exempt from disease, there is no evidence to show that the apples gathered for the purpose of raising the new stock were the product of sound plants. Quite the opposite. If the argument holds good that the seeds of disease are in the plant ready to be developed, Are the plums free from disease? I say no; but if the process of cultivating new kinds is carried out, it must, and will, result in the production of fresh and strong stock.

I suppose that every person is aware that light soils produce better-flavoured potatoes than those grown on clayey soils; for the soil has an influence whatever may be the variety, and those grown on land previously manured in the autumn are finer flavoured than those planted in immediate contact with the dung in the drills.

Manuring in the autumn is one of the best methods to adopt, with a top-dressing of wood ash, or ashes from pairing and burning; they supply a valuable potash, the food of the plant.

The Americans burn quantities of timber for black ash and potash, and which forms a very valuable article of commerce. Seaweed is also freely used where it can be had.

As potato possesses a spreading root, it requires a uniform manuring, not an instantaneous supply of soluble matter. The esculent being produced and perfected during the latter period of the growth of the plant, it wants the greatest amount of nourishment at that time for the development of the tubers.

What invigorating substance, and in what quantity it should be used, is a most difficult question to answer, particularly as manure in all cases acts more quickly on plants when it is well prepared.

In an economical point of view the safest and best manure for potato is that which contains plenty of azote, and does not decompose too quickly. The following will be found to be a good mixture for potato manure:—4 cwt. of mineral superphosphate, 2 cwt. of muriate of potash, and 2 cwt. of sulphate of ammonia per statute acre. This is suitable for light soils. In the case of heavy soils, 2 cwt. of nitrate of soda takes the place of the same quantity of sulphate of ammonia. These manures are mixed with twice their weight of finely-screened earth, and sown broadcast before planting the potatoes. The above will give fully as good returns as 20 tons of farm-yard manure.

Had farm-yard manure been other than a compound containing all the ingredients of the produce raised on the farm, many more potato failures might have occurred. These ingredients undergo various chemical changes while circulating, and are prepared and fitted for entering when and where it is necessary into the solid and fixed parts of the potato plant, and each exercise a chemical action on the elementary bodies, which they meet with in the stems and wood of the plant. Ammonia and ammoniacal salts, as a rule, produce bulk; and phosphate also produces quantity and bulk. The aim should be to secure both.

If agriculturists wish to cultivate their soils successfully, they must spend a deal of money on manures, as the present state of cultivation necessitates the application to the soil of more fertilising agents than is obtained from farm-yard manure. Potash is an indispensable article for invigorating the health of leguminous plants, and where alkali is abstracted it must be applied with no sparing hand.

However easy it may appear to apply artificial manures to the soil, as long as the knowledge of chemistry is so limited in the respect of application, manures must continue to be applied much in the same manner as at present, with such gradual improvements as inquiry and progressive chemical knowledge may direct. Has the agriculturist nothing to answer for? Does he restore to the ground, by manure, those properties which former crops have taken away, and which are necessary for the healthy cultivation of potato?

Last century Sir H. Davy called the attention of agriculturists to the fact that the land became exhausted from repeated cropping, and that something ought to be done in partial appliance of chemicals. About 30 years ago Professor Liebig directed attention to artificial manures with a view of replacing the azote that had been extracted from the land. I do not mean to infer that the improper use of artificial manures has been the cause of potato disease, but this I know, that land never before cultivated is most productive of potatoes free of disease.


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